The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Illinois Reclaiming their Place


By Paul M. Banks


The nerve-wracking, oh-so-close, but still ultimately futile Illinois Big Ten conference tournament run is over. You knew from the start that it was going to be a huge long shot for Illinois to get that automatic bid. They inspired and excited us, maybe even got a few of us in Illination to rock out to Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing;’ but the odds were certainly against them as they faced the nation’s 8th ranked team on Sunday. The defeat broke a school record for losses in a season set in 1998-99. But is also ended a March where the Illini finished 5-2, compared to 11-17 the rest of the season. This year was ‘98-‘99 all over again; right down to the improbable run as a low seed in the Big Ten tournament. Back then Illinois started their 20 game win streak over Minnesota (longest of any Big 10 team over another) with a 67-64 triumph over the #23 ranked Gophers in the first round. Then they smashed the #17 ranked Indiana Hoosiers 82-66 in the second round and squeaked past #11 Ohio State (a Final Four team that season) 79-77 in the semis.

The famous run, largely made possible to the sharp shooting of the ‘Memphis Showboat,’ Cory Bradford (remember him? 5th leading scorer in Illinois history, guy with the NCAA record 88 game streak with at least one trey) ended at the hands of #2 Michigan State (another Final Four team that year) in the conference tournament final game. If you followed the Big Ten tournament at all this past weekend, you’ll notice the eerie similarities. Demetri McCamey did his best Bradford impersonation, going 6 for 6 from distance in the quarterfinal victory over Purdue. The margin of defeat in the title game was almost identical to nine years ago as well.  

Here’s the bright spot: in the following year, ’99-’00, Illinois resolved their point guard issues and made it back to the NCAAs with a 23 win and  final AP national ranking of #21 season. The current Illini team suffered the same adversity as the ’99 squad because it recruited complete morons with judgment issues to play the two-guard spot, and off-the-court problems screwed things up badly for Illinois at that position. Problems with discipline from similar idiots caused comparable distress at the one for Illinois in 1999. Luckily, the shooting guard position is already resolved for next season, so I expect things to return to normal. Missing the tournament is abnormal in Champaign. 


The Big Ten Tournament: lllinois’ House.

The Illini have a record of 21-9 in the Big Ten tournament, the next closest team in wins has 13. They’ve advanced to the semis in every year of the tournament’s existence other than ’06. They won the whole thing in ’05 and ’03, and lost in the title game in ’99, ’00, ’04, and ’08. In honor of St.Patrick’s day, I quote Braveheart (yeah, I know it’s about a Scotland-England war, not Ireland, but that crazy Irish guy: “IT’S MY ISLAND!!!” and his group of Gaelic warriors were key to the film’s plot, so it’s close enough) during this weekend, the Illini “fought like warrior-poets” because one man defending his homeland is stronger than 10,000 hired soldiers. The Fighting Illini finally learned how to actually shoot free throws in their wins over Penn State and Minnesota. Illinois overcame 25 turnovers and 40% foul shooting to beat #17 Purdue in Indianapolis, by far their best win of the season. In the title game on Sunday, Illinois’ horrible shooting percentage was largely due to shots that were missed short- a sign of tired legs refusing to get proper lift and adequate follow through in jump shots. Fatigue had finally caught up to Illinois and not even junior swingman Calvin Brock’s phenomenal vertical leap could save them. We know all about Brock’s sensational ‘ups’ because Billy Packer mentioned it 37 times during the telecast of the title game. 

Death, Taxes and Illinois over Minnesota in basketball.

To say that Illinois owns the Minnesota Golden Gophers in basketball is a huge understatement. On Saturday they won the hardest game to watch in college basketball history, a game made more excruciating by numerous commercial breaks prolonging it. ‘Tubby Time’ seems to expire when playing the orange and blue. I broke out the media guide to find that the last Minnesota win of the series occurred on Feb 8th, 1999 as the #18 Golden Gophers beat UI in Minneapolis 75-63. (Pete and Andy, I hope you’re reading on) This 20 game streak has now stretched into 4 different arenas/cities and two time zones. Even in 1997, the year that Minnesota had the only #1 seed and Final Four appearance in school history, Illinois (a 22 win, second round exit team) beat them in Champaign and lost in the Twin Cities by just one point in the closing seconds.

It’s morning, not mourning in Champaign

Right before the dawn, it always gets pitch black. I would say that losing at home to Penn St., Miami of Ohio and Tennessee St. is pretty dark. However, this is still a basketball school! Illinois has more wins and a higher winning percentage all time than any other school without a national championship. Indiana is the only school in the Big Ten ahead of Illinois in all-time tournament appearances, tournament wins, and All-Americans. We’re only three years removed from the season in which we tied the national record for wins in a season with 37. Have there been some disasters off the court? Absolutely. Has Bruce Weber flubbed in recruiting and shot himself in the foot? Certainly. However, his hire of assistant coach Jerrance Howard has already fixed that problem. Kentucky de-commit Alex Legion is one of the highest rated players at his position (the position where Illinois is most badly in need of added depth) in his class. He’ll be eligible for conference play next year. A week ago, Illinois signed junior college forward Dominique Keller. Both additions were largely due to Howard’s recruiting efforts. What’s most amazing about the ’98-’99 season, is how that final conference tournament run –despite the fact that it came up just short of the ultimate goal- gives me much fonder memories of that season than my feelings toward the campaign were at the time. History will repeat itself here again.


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